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With one foot in Europe and perceived by many in the Middle East as being the most liberal and forward-thinking country in the region, Turkey has a deeply illiberal streak. However, this streak is not just the increasingly illiberal politics but the socially illiberal beliefs that consume debate around homosexuality and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights.
Well into the 21st century, acceptance of the LGBTQ community and even non-heteronormative individuals remains a difficult issue. This is despite Istanbul hosting perhaps the Middle East’s largest gay pride parade for many years, and the country’s former imperial courts long having been associated with queer sexualities.
Some Ottoman art was overtly homoerotic, with the exposed and erect members of the subjects putting to bed any question of this Muslim society doing away with such practices. Indeed, historical documentation of non-heteronormative sexual practices is much sought after today around the world.
The historical acceptance of homosexuality within Ottoman society in turn fuelled a European fetishism of Ottoman eroticism, inevitably Orientalizing the apparent perversity of Turkish society. Victorian audiences were publicly scandalized by, but loved to read, exaggerated tales of Ottoman harems and sexual promiscuity (like John Benjamin Brookes’ The Lustful Turk).
In fact, Turkey decriminalized homosexual acts in 1858, during the Ottoman Empire, much earlier than many countries typically deemed liberal today. Even so, while the Ottoman Empire was by no means a liberal paradise, just a century after the Turkish Republic’s founding, homophobia is widespread.
Even though homosexuality has been legal in Turkey since 1923, homophobia is common, stemming from a mix of conservative cultural values, an arguably toxic masculinity and conservative trends in Islam.
While this homophobia is no doubt felt in many spheres of daily life, it hits the headlines most frequently when it turns violent. In a country where masculinity is lauded by both politicians and citizens, it is little surprise that those undermining the heterosexual cismale ideal have become targets. A 2016 report for the United Nations written by Turkish LGBTQ activists highlighted 41 murders of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people as a result of hate crimes between 2010 and mid-2014.
While the Turkish constitution does not ban homosexuality – and an explicitly homophobic clause was removed after a legal battle – statutes on public morality and obscenity are often used to police the gay community.
Surprisingly, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once advocated LGBTQ rights. Before his election as prime minister in 2003, he declared that “homosexuals must also be given legal protection for their rights and freedoms”.
However, since then his Justice and Development Party (AKP), has reversed its stance on protecting rights for sexual minorities. In 2013, Erdogan stated that homosexuality was a sexual preference that was incompatible with Islam’s culture. Within the Sunni Muslim community, the AKP’s conservative cultural ideals, which the government appears keen to propagate and enforce, Turkish society’s violent stance towards the LGBTQ society makes even more sense.
There was no word for sodomy in Arabic or Persian until the modern era, and there is no explicit prohibition of sodomy in the Koran. Even so, like most religions, Islam takes an unkind view of homosexual behavior. Turkey’s religious leaders have been consistent opponents of any moves to strengthen sexual minority rights, and some have even warned against some behaviours (like shaving a beard) as potentially leading to homosexuality.
Turkey’s socially conservative populations, especially outside major metropolitan areas, have shown little willingness to accept LGBTQ communities or behaviour. This is hardly surprising given the persistence of conservative norms around hon-our killings and strict controls on women’s freedoms in much of the country.
Furthermore, while homosexuality may not illegal, institutional discrimination still exists.
Military service is still a milestone in the life of Turkish men and obligatory for all healthy males. However, gay men are exempt if they can (and are willing) to provide ‘evidence’ of their sexuality. This often takes the form of videos or photographs of them engaging in homosexual acts. These materials are not returned by the state, with the men who submitted them unable to know if authorities will later have access to them – a terrifying prospect for anyone.
Employers have the right to demand to see the green card issued to discharged military conscripts, whereas gay men are issued with pink exemption cards, facilitating further discrimination later in life. Furthermore, public institutions, including the police force, have forced out gay employees (although this also occurs in the private sector). Those who are victims of such homophobia profess to fearing social and professional recrimination from their colleagues.
In the street
LGBTQ rights activists have been an obvious target for state-sponsored repression of gay rights.
Since 2014, authorities have either not allowed, or police have broken up, all pride marches. In 2018, for the fourth consecutive year in its 18-year history, police banned and broke up Istanbul’s pride march. The official reason given was a lack of formal notification and the threat of counter-demonstrations, although little seems to have been done to curb the far-right groups targeting pride marches.
Security forces used tear gas, water cannons and pepper-ball bullets to violently stop marchers and party-goers. Such use of force has become typical when authorities clash with demonstrators on Turkey’s streets, and Istanbul’s governor has previously denied permission for a criminal investiga-tion into the conduct of the police during these violent incidents.
Although less violent, in 2017, the governor of Ankara banned LGBTQ cinema and cultural events, further censoring non-heterosexual identity and culture.
Even so, Turkey is one of the few countries in the Middle East to have ever organized or permitted a gay pride march, and past events marked Turkey as one of the most gay-friendly countries in a largely homophobic region. These events attracted people from across the region and Central Asia. Despite the apparent clampdown on gay rights in Turkey in recent years, for many in the Middle East, the country still remains a haven in which they can enjoy freedoms unthinkable in their home-lands.
To put these freedoms in a wider context, however, although LGBTQ groups in other parts of the world are fighting for equal rights to marry and have children, in Turkey, this community is still fighting for basic rights.